Drying The Baitarani
The Baitarani River is one of six major rivers of Odisha. The coastal plain of Odisha has been termed as a “Hexadeltaic region” or the “Gift of Six Rivers”. These deltas divide the coastal plain into three regions from the north to the south. The Baitarani, the Mahanadi and the Brahmani rivers form the Middle Coastal Plain. It is one of the oldest rivers in the country, flowing from a geological formation which is proven to have some of the earliest rocks in the world. The river originates and flows from one of the most minerally rich piece of land on planet earth. The river Baitarani originates from the hills at Gonasika and after traversing through the neighbouring state of Jharkhand, meanders through the districts of Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Jajpur, Kendrapara and Bhadrak before it meets the Bay of Bengal near Dhamra.
The rampant exploitation of the mineral wealth of the district and continuous deforestation are causing the river to die a slow death. Rapid deforestation has resulted in very poor flow in the river and siltation due to mines run off is showing up at strategic places.
The river has a rough ride for the first 100 kilometers till it enters a plain at Anandapur and creates a deltaic zone at Akhuapada. The river travels a distance of 360 kms to drain into the Bay of Bengal after joining of the Brahmani at Dhamra mouth near Chandbali. The river has 65 tributaries, of which 35 join from the left bank and 30 from the right. The river basin in Odisha is spread in 42 blocks of five districts.
From the agricultural point of view, the river is the only source of water for farmers of the four out of the five districts through which it passes. Many irrigation projects have been implemented or are in the planning stages. The river is the lifeline of the district, both for drinking water and irrigation. In recent years, the populace has suffered acutely during periods of drought and low rainfall. The many dams and barrages on the Baitarani and its major tributary, Salandi, irrigate 61,920 hectares. The proposed Bhimkund and upper Baitarani multi-purpose projects envisage many more dams across this river and its tributaries.
The Government of Odisha, in its pursuit of rapid development, has allowed many industries to draw water from the river. Memorandums of Understanding for major steel plants have been entered into, and these industries which being planned will have a huge requirement of water. In spite of the existing grim scenario, the government has allowed two companies, namely BRPL Ltd. and ESSAR Steel Ltd. to lay pipelines for the transportation of iron ore in slurry form, a project which will draw a lot of water from the Baitarani.
Both the companies have laid down their pipeline without waiting for complete clearances from the statutory authorities. The Government of Odisha has all along turned a blind eye to all these illegal activities. They have also turned a deaf ear to all the protests that have taken place to protect the vital river. Basic forest and environmental laws have been violated, and the administration has clandestinely been supporting these corporates. One of these companies has constructed a check dam just downstream from Gonasika. The water for the pipeline was to be taken from this place. Huge intake pipes have been laid, and when the pumps were tested, the river ran dry. This created panic among the nearby inhabitants.
The Naveen Patnaik government has been time and again assuring that river waters will not be utilised for industries, and if so only the surplus left off after irrigation and drinking would be allowed. If industries are allowed to take their required water from rivers, it will be an economic disaster for the small and marginal farmers of the state. This industrialisation will create a lot of pollution and waste products which too will add to the woes of the people. The river will be choked by the by-products and effluents of the industries.
BRPL has constructed a tailing pond in the Ward No I of Barbil Municipality, and tried to discharge its piped waste product in the pond during tests. This has created a lot of unrest among the local people. This tailing pond is located inside the Kiriburu Reserve Forest and forms a part of the catchment area of the Karrow River. This is in gross violation of all laws, in spite of this the company is forcefully continuing laying its pipeline and construction work was going on unhindered and in full swing.
During the laying of the pipe line, many valuable trees, which were inside the reserve forest, were chopped down. The forest officials have taken no heed to this and no action whatsoever has been initiated against the company till now. Later, after two eyewash cases were initiated by the forest authorities, the company kept on its work.
BRPL Ltd. has mentioned in its project report prepared by Mekon that it would lay pipelines only on the sideway of the NH-215. But later on it has secured permission from the district administration for laying the pipelines on the state highway, PWD, RD, ODR village roads and even in the reserved forests. It is ironical that the district administration has gone overboard in order to benefit a private company and has permitted to trench and destroy the public roads which were made at the cost of the taxpayers money.
Both the companies have clearly mentioned in their Environmental Impact Assessment reports about the need of forest land for their plant, tailing pond, water pipelines, slurry pipeline and other proposes. The Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 (Amendment 2003) lays that the projects which depend on both the forest land and non forest land cannot start their construction work unless they get forest clearance from the Government of India. However, both the companies, in spite of not having received forest clearance till date, were carrying out project work forcibly till early August. The Forest Department and the local administration, instead of taking action against such illegal activity, rather threatened the local people with prosecution if voices against the projects were raised.
It is fact that BRPL had started laying pipelines in the reserved forest land even before applying for the diversion proposal. An RTI activist brought this to the notice of the state government on the March 11, 2010, after which BRPL applied for diversion of the forest land on the March 16, 2010.
The district and state administration are hand in glove with both the companies and have fast-tracked all permissions and no objections to them. The former collector of the district Debjani Chakravorty went overboard in allowing the companies to break every rule in the book. She was known for her allegedly anti-tribal attitude and had also affronted the Padmashree tribal leader Tulasi Munda.
THE GANGA OF ODISHA
Many ancient religious faiths and cultural mores are attributed to river Baitarani. Venerated in popular epics and legends, Baitarani is held as sacred and revered by the people of Odisha and the neighbouring states. Archaeological and historical evidences indicate early civilization on the bank of this river. Many important religious functions like holy baths, yajnas, funerary rituals etc are performed on its banks. There are innumerable shaivite shrines on its banks, in fact every twist and turn of the river has a temple on its bank.
There is a mention of the river in Vyasa’s Sanskrit Mahabharata, in the Puranas and other ancient religious texts. The sanctity and importance of the river has been described in these texts, and the river has been termed as the Ganga of Odisha.
The Baitarani originates from the Guptaganga hills at an elevation of 900 metre above sea level. The uppermost part of the river, about 80 km in length, flows in a northerly direction; then it changes its path suddenly by ninety degrees and flows eastward. The source of the river is Gonasika, which is akin to Gaumukh of the Ganges. It is believed that Brahma worshipped for a thousand years as a penance for a curse. There is a Brameshwar temple near the source. Gonasika means the nostrils of a cow, and there is a huge rock with two indentions from where two streams flow to form the rivulet which eventually swells as the Baitarani. The river meanders its way amidst thick jungles which abound in rich vegetation and wildlife. It is the life source of the district, and many unique tribals such as Juangs, Santals, Bhuiyans, Bathuris and Gandas depend on this river for their livelihood. The various tribes have their own myths and taboos about this sacred river, and have worshipped it as the mother goddess in various forms. Their lives have been deeply intertwined with the river since time immemorial.
There are various spots in the villages which are believed to be associated with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Ramkund, Bhimkund, Sita Bhinj, Ram Tirth, Keshari Kund, Rupakund etc. are some of these spots.
Downstream, at Jajpur, also called the Biraja Khestra, the river is called the Nabhi Gaya and is considered to be one of the most sacred places for pind daan (the ritual which frees one from the cycle of rebirth). Hindus from all over the country come here to perform the last rituals of their loved ones. The Saptamatruka Temple here is dedicated to Hindu Tantric and Puranic goddesses called Saptamatrikas. They comprise Brahmani, Vaishnavi, Shivaduti or Indrani, Narasimhi, Chamunda, Kaumari and Varahi. Legend says that these goddesses emanated from the body of Durga while she was engaged in battle with the demons Nishumbha and Shumbha.The matrikas represent the inner will power of their respective male gods.
The deities were installed during the Ashwamedha sacrifice of King Yajati Keshari in the 11th Century AD. When the marauding moguls were on a temple destroying spree, the Brahmin priests had hidden the images of Saptamatrikas in a tunnel near Baitarani river. Later the images were recovered and worshipped by Utkala Brahmins of Jajpur. The Budha Ganesha Temple and the Dashaswamedha Ghat too are on the banks of this river. Devotees in lakhs take a holy dip in this ghat during the Krishnapaksha Chaturdasi.
Further downstream from Jajpur, the ancient shrine of Shri Siddeshwar is one of the holiest seats of the Biraja Pitha. Built on the riverbed of the Baitarini, the Siddeshwar Temple is situated in the village Siddeshwar of Taliha Gram Panchayat—six kms away from Jajpur. The river Baitarini is the only route for the devotees of the nearby villages who come to this temple of their presiding deity by boats. Just a glimpse or a salute to the lord while passing by the shrine is believed to keep away all evils.
The holy seat is also known as Siddhapeetha and there are innumerable ancient myths attributed to it. One such tale corroborates that once the Lord of Lords, Mahadev invoked Lord Brahma to choose a place on the earth for his sojourn with Goddess Parvati. Brahma, the creator, chose the sacred Biraja Pitha for Lord Shiva’s earthly sojourn. Brahma also arranged a yajna to sanctify the Lord and prayed to the sacred Baitarini to flow down the plains of Jaipur. Originating from the Gonashika peak Keonjhar, the holy river, on her earthly voyage got polluted by coming in contact with the human settlements on its banks. According to the legend, Baitarini urged Brahma, to set a multitude of Shivalingas on her course, which today are known as the Krosha lingas. The Brameshwar Shivalinga at Gonasika is the first and the Siddeshwar Linga is the last of a chain of Shivalingas installed by Lord Brahma.
The temple is surrounded by countless other holy seats and shrines of Biraja Pitha. There are hundred and eight Shivalingas, sixty-eight pilgrimage sites, the Asta Bhairab, Goddess Nabadurga, Dwadasha Madhava, Troyadasha Rudra and Dwadasha Ganesh. Of the eight pilgrimage sites, the important ones are Ganga Tirtha, Beni Tirtha, Siddha Tirtha and above all, Asthi Kshepana Tirtha. It is believed that the Pandavas had performed death rites of their forefathers at the end of their exile on the banks of the river.
“In lines with the general policy of the Naveen Patnaik government towards all wrong-doer bureaucrats, she was elevated to the post of the Water Resources Secretary, where she now supervises all such projects in the state,” said a district official requesting anonymity.
This is not all, some of the workers of BRPL had been caught red-handed while engaged in laying pipelines in the reserved forest and were entangled in many different cases. About 350 meters of pipeline of BRPL were also seized. But neither the heavy machinery like JCB machines which were used in trenching of forest land were seized nor any official of the company was booked in the case. In a blatant gesture, the ACF of the forest department clarified to the court that the company had never repeated the mistake and the proposal for diversion of forest land for the company had been recommended to be cleared.
The private armies of these companies have wreaked havoc amongst the local adivasis. The police too had joined them in suppressing all forms of opposition to the projects. False cases were filed against local youths who spearheaded the campaign to save the river and they were implicated in arson and assault. Multiple cases were filed against all those who raised their voices. It is alleged that Asadhu Majhi, a labourer from Kalahandi, was tortured and murdered by the goons of ESSAR. The villagers also allege that a young Harijan boy was killed and thrown into a well. When the villagers protested, the police attacked the women and injured many of them.
THE SEERS ENTER THE SCENE
After the clarion call was given by Murali Manohar Sharma of the Baitarini Bachao Abhiyan, a large gathering of holy saints from important mutts and centers of Odisha converged at Gonasika, the source of the Baitarini on the morning of the 21st June 2010. They were led by the Coordinator of the Odisha Sadhu Samaj, Sarat Jaisingh. The convener of the Baitarini Suraksya Manch, Sarbeswar Mishra along with the saints, offered prayers at Gonasika, and then marched to Basudevpur, and a large populace of the locals and adivasis joined the Save Baitarini march.
Mahant Swami Bishambardas Maharaj of Puri stated that not a drop of the Baitarini would be allowed to be taken for the industries. The river is for the farmers and the locals, the water cannot be piped away.
Swami Rama Krishnadas stated that the government was playing with the religious sentiments of the people of Odisha and that this would not be taken sitting down. Parsuramdasji Maharaj of Khurdah condemned the stand of the state government. Harishnandan Maharaj of Malipada Gadi declared that a dharmayudh would be launched if sacrilege was done on the river.
Mahant Sri Sri Tridandiswami Bhaktichakor Goswami of Puri said that the government was only interested in filling the coffers of the rich at the cost of the poor.
Besides Gonasika, parallel marches were also held at Mugupur in Anandapur and at Champua. The intervention of the Mahants spurred a people’s movement, and tribals and non-tribals, in thousands, joined the sadhus and pledged their lives for the sake of the river. Prayers were simultaneously held in all the temples, and word on the impending doom went out to all the people who lived on its banks. The movement to “Save Baitarini” took wing and the momentum of protests grew. There is now a groundswell against the exploiters of the river in the entire district.
The de-reservation proposals submitted by both the companies were sent to the central government for approval which was contravention of the rule of 4.4 and 1.6 of the Forest Conservation Act 1980 (Amended). The Forest Department is in violation of the Forest Conservation Act 1980 (Amendment 2003) which categorically states that state governments should not consider or process cases which are pending in various courts or are sub judice to avoid all sorts of administrative and legal complications. While forwarding the diversion proposal of BRPL Ltd. to the Ministry of Enviroment and Forest (MoEF), Government of India, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and the Principal Secretary, Forest & Environment Deptartment, Government of Odisha have overlooked that fact that a multitude of cases are pending in the courts against these companies.
In a writ petition (No 9118/2010) in the Odisha High Court, Kangali Maharana & others v/s State of Orissa in which the Collector Keonjhar, Divisional Forest Officer Keonjhar, besides the PCCF, Secretary Forest and BRPL Ltd have been named as the opposing parties. Besides this, three cases are pending in the JMFC Court at Barbil. In spite of this, the Collector had given his go-ahead for processing the DRP’s. These proposals are now pending before the MoEF.
Besides the effects of drawing water from the source of the river for the transportation of ore through the slurry route, it will render the transportation sector of the region redundant. There are more then 30,000 trucks operating in the area, carrying ore from the mines to the port and industries. If ore is transported by pipelines, it will throw nearly 6 lakh persons employed in the transport sector out of jobs. Besides the economic repercussions, there shall also be economic mayhem in the districts.
The decrease in its flow is alarming for the 50 lakh people who depend upon it as the only source for drinking purpose and day-to-day usage and for almost 10 lakh cultivators who depend upon this river for their agricultural purposes. Various industrial houses and mine owners are drawing water directly from Baitarani and its tributaries and some of them are surepptiously drawing underground water from the Baitarani basin which has consequently resulted in huge shortage of water in the area. As per the Government record the flow of water in Baitarani at Basudevpur (Kanpur) some time is coming down to 2.5 cusecs during lean period i.e. from December to May. Naturally in this period people depending on the river are suffering. There is hardly any water source remains for use of industrial purposes in lean season.
The Government of Odisha has permitted withdrawal of 11.7 cusecs water to ESSAR Steel from upstream from the Kanpur dam and 4.7. cusecs to BRPL from downstream. It has further committed 14.7 cusecs water to Jindal Steel from further downstream. At Ramturth in the adjoining state of Jharkhand, TISCO & SE Railway are already drawing 15 cusecs of water through a huge intake from Baitarani for their Noamundi plant & township and the Noamundi Railway Station.
The affected people are in the dark about the quantity of water that will remain in Baitarani after withdrawal by the above companies. According to laid-down legal provisions, this matter should have been discussed through a public hearing in the actual affected areas, instead BRPL Ltd. conducted a hearing at Barbil where there is hardly any dependence on the river water.
Both BRPL and Essar had the tacit and open support of the government and administration to do their own free will. The manner in which the State and District Administration is bending backwards to accommodate the companies had raised the hackles of many locals. Murali Manohar Sharma has taken the lead and started a campaign in the district where he educated the people on the disaster that was in the making. As the convener of the Baitarani Bachao Abhiyan, he spoke of the economic doom that the pipeline would bring to the district. He stated that it would render more than one lakh people jobless as the pipeline would make the system of truck transportation redundant.
Leading from the front, Murali fought relentlessly, but the companies still have a free run. They cocked a snook at all authority and the locals, using all methods to suppress the rising swell of opposition. The Police, Forest and Revenue officials too were in the loop, and did all they could do to kill the agitation. Murali Sharma received threats and inducements, he was targeted by the local mafia and the state government tried to armtwist him into calling off the agitation.
Murali was aware that besides the economic doom, the river had deep religious relevance for people on its banks. The sants and mahatamas joined the fray and soon it became a people’s movement. Murali, in his capacity of the State General Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party launched a week-long agitation which brought the district to a grind. He held a massive rally in the district headquarters, and made a fervent appeal to the locals to save Mother Baitarani. This was followed by a week-long dharna at the Collectorate. This drew the attention of national leaders and party senior Rajnath Singh flew down to Barbil. He pledged his support to the cause of the farmers and said that as a “Kisan Ke Beta”, he would repeatedly come and join the fight. He called Murali a true son of the soil, and appreciate his efforts to save the river.
Murali then led a delegation of the State BJP on the 3rd August 2011 and confronted the Collector with proof and evidence. The District Collector was convinced of the gravity of the issue, and immediately took action to stop all work. However, work was resumed after a few months, and the companies blatantly flouted the orders. The death of a local in one of the work sites sparked off another agitation and the administration was forced to conduct an enquiry which reported that work was still going on.
For Murali, who has been termed as Baitaraniputra by the people of Keonjhar, this fight has been tough. He is aware that after investing so much in laying the pipeline, the companies will not stop short of other tricks. However, he is committed to the cause of the Baitarani flowing freely, as it has been since time immemorial.
In the wake of the prolonged agitation and the blatant violations by these companies, which was highlighted by Murali Manohar Sharma and others, the Collector was forced to issue stop work and show cause notices to both. In his letter dated the August 4, 2011, DV Swamy, the Collector has asked the companies to stop work immediately. It was a small victory for the people, as the Collector was soon transferred and the work was restarted under cover.
This year, the Baitarani had no floods and the water level recorded during the monsoons was abysmally low. In the summer, the river gets dried up in small patches as the water flow to the river comes to a standstill. However, for the first time in the last several years, the river got completely dried up in large stretches this year. Thus, for all practical purposes, the holy river is dying, thanks to the ecological imbalances created by human wantonness.
By Anil Dhir From Keonjhar